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Lawyer Presses 23-Year Battle on Behalf of 'Geronimo' Pratt

March 13, 1997|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since he showed up at San Quentin prison 23 years ago, a third-year law student offering to help with appeals, San Francisco attorney Stuart Hanlon has been the constant in former Black Panther Party leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt's persistent efforts to overturn his murder conviction.

Other attorneys have come and gone, as have various celebrities, elected officials, community activists and members of the clergy--all of them convinced that Pratt was the target of political prosecution.

But Hanlon, equal parts leprechaun and mensch, has spent half his 48 years doggedly pursuing freedom for Pratt--more than two decades of failed appeals, adverse judgments and denied writs.

Now, with final arguments scheduled to begin today in Pratt's latest and most promising bid to overturn his conviction, Hanlon should be buoyant. But his optimism is tempered by grim personal reality: On Monday, his wife will begin a hospital stay of at least six weeks to undergo radiation, chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant to treat leukemia diagnosed in January.

At every hearing in Pratt's efforts to overturn his conviction, Hanlon has been there striding--no, more like waddling--across the courtroom, appearing to absent-mindedly shuffle papers while lobbing verbal mortar rounds at prosecutors. His shirttail has the persistent habit of flopping out over his pants. And his suits--despite his wife's best efforts--prompted one courtroom wag to dub him "Rumpled of the Bailey."

"Stu is still ready and open to telling the same story over and over to every new person who comes around," said lay minister Jim McCloskey, whose Centurion Ministries embraced Pratt's cause four years ago.

"I can't let go," Hanlon said. "The case is always present. It has never been dormant for me. It's always been something that's motivated me to find a way to get him out of prison."

Pratt has been in prison for 24 years since being convicted in the shooting death of schoolteacher Caroline Olsen during a 1968 robbery.

Hanlon is credited with maintaining the momentum in Pratt's corner. He has remained convinced that Pratt was denied a fair trial because police and prosecutors suppressed evidence that would have impeached key witnesses.

Today's oral arguments come after a yearlong effort to win a new trial, the fifth such attempt Hanlon and other attorneys have made on Pratt's behalf.

Just as this hearing on new evidence was winding down in Orange County in January, Hanlon's wife, Kathleen Ryan, also an attorney, was diagnosed as having leukemia.

Hanlon would have preferred to remain with her and his two young sons in San Francisco, but she insisted that he go back to Southern California where he went to court every day, gulping tranquilizers and examining witnesses.

Hanlon's friends say they cannot imagine circumstances more difficult than those he now faces. But they also note that he has been joining pitched battles against overwhelming odds since his days as a member of the militant Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia University in the late 1960s.

That generation embraced change by any means necessary. But when Hanlon realized that the "revolution" was not going to be won, he headed west and to law school.

While volunteering legal assistance to prisoners at San Quentin, he heard about Pratt. Hanlon believed all events and decisions were motivated by politics, and felt that the Pratt conviction was no exception.

Pratt had maintained since his 1972 conviction that he was framed by authorities who were waging war against the Panthers. At the time Olsen was killed, Pratt said, he was in Oakland. Authorities knew that, he said, because they kept the Panthers under tight surveillance.

Hanlon had to make three tries to visit Pratt in San Quentin before succeeding. On the first attempt, an inmate stabbed a guard with a homemade knife. Visit canceled. On the second, Hanlon spotted "an incredibly sharp Afro comb" on the visiting room floor.

"Geronimo said: 'Don't touch it. It's a setup. Call the guard,' " Hanlon said.

The guard told Hanlon to hand him the comb, but Hanlon refused, saying: "You pick it up. I'm not touching it."

Pratt, Hanlon said, "had realized that the guards were setting him up to say he would smuggle in a weapon." That visit, too, was canceled.

When Pratt and Hanlon eventually sat down together, their differences were obvious. Pratt, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, is an African American who came from a small town in Louisiana. Hanlon, whose father is Irish Catholic and mother is Russian Jewish, grew up in New York City and was classified 4F for the draft.

"Sometimes different backgrounds mesh," Hanlon said, adding that he and Pratt had "a certain commonality. It's always been there. We trusted each other. We have a shared interest in politics, people. We just hit it off."

Pratt told Hanlon that no one believed him when he said he was being set up, thinking he was paranoid.

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